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Drug Smuggler Says Noriega Borrowed Ring’s Jet

February 8, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A convicted narcotics smuggler testified Monday that Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega borrowed the drug ring’s Lear jet to fly to the United States and elsewhere and made his own aircraft available for flights to Colombia to set up marijuana deals.

Leigh Rich, 34, who is serving a 30-year prison term for racketeering, also told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that Noreiga demanded and received a $300,000 payment to arrange security - including bodyguards - for the laundering of drug profits through Panamanian banks.

Rich’s testimony paralleled that of a former associate, Steven Michael Kalish, who told Senate investigators on Jan. 28 that he had given Noriega $300,000 in a cash-filled briefcase.

Noriega was indicted in Florida last week on charges he took at least $4.6 million in payoffs to shelter drug activities.

Testifying under oath, Rich described a career in distributing illegal drugs that he said began with small amounts of marijuana during his high school days in Tampa, Fla. and grew to a large-scale operation using shrimp boats and jets and shipments of up to 480,000 pounds of marijuana worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

He said he had originally funneled the proceeds through banks in the Cayman Islands, but switched the operation to Panama because of U.S. pressure on Caymanian financial institutions.

″Panama was still more or less wide open and they offered protection - security at the airport,″ Rich said.

Rich said he and Kalish visited Panama in September 1983, traveling on the Lear jet.

He said they met on the top floor of a Panama City office building with a man he identified as Caesar Rodiguez.

″My understanding is that he was the direct link to the Panamanian government,″ Rich said, adding that he was told Rodriguez was Noriega’s business partner.

He said Rodriguez promised landing rights at a small airport near downtown Panama City, chauffeur-driven cars and bodyguards.

In return, he said Rodriguez asked for a share of the money being laundered in amounts ranging from 1 percent to 3 percent, depending on the amount involved.

The higher the amount being deposited, the smaller the fee, with 1 percent being charged for deposits of $5 million or more, Rich said.

He said Kalish worked for him as ″a field operations man″ and acquired a house in Panama to use as a base of operations.

He said Noriega, whom he never met personally, also provided security for flights to Colombia to set up drug deals.

″Noriega was the connection?″ asked Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

″Yes sir, we used their aircraft,″ Rich said.

He said Noriega was interested in using the Lear jet for long trips in Central America and in one case, to Washington.

He said the drug smugglers were granted use of Noriega’s personal propeller-driven plane for trips to Colombia. During one such trip, he said, ″we set up a deal that resulted in a drug shipment.″

Earlier Monday, a New York City prosecutor testified that law enforcement officials long have known Noriega was involved in drug trafficking but that legal action against him was delayed because of his ties to top U.S. officials.

″My view was he should have been prosecuted a long time ago,″ Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau said, as the terrorism, narcotics and international operations subcommittee opened hearings on the Latin American drug trade.

″People in law enforcement have known General Noriega was corrupt for a long period of time,″ Morgenthau testified. He said Noriega relied for shelter on his relationships with ″high people in the U.S. government″ who used him as an intelligence source. He did not name the ″high people.″

Morganthau, a Democrat, outlined what he said was a foreign policy crisis caused by drug trading, with drug money flooding Latin America and providing a ″dirty dollars″ aid plan for Colombia and Bolivia, two countries that are the source of much of the cocaine reaching American cities.

″We must recognize that Mexican ‘black tar’ and Colombian ‘white powder’ pose as grave a threat to our country as Nicaraguan or Cuban ’reds,‴ Morgenthau told the committee.

He said the money that pays for those drugs is flooding Latin America, with an estimated $4.5 billion going to Colombia and $900 million to Bolivia last year alone, far more than official U.S. aid to those nations.

″Giving billions of dollars to drug barons may be somebody’s idea of a contemporary Marshall Plan, but not mine,″ Morgenthau said. ″Drug money is destroying the social fabric of our Latin neighbors.″

″Law is vanishing and freedom is in jeopardy in the countries cursed by the flow of dirty dollars from the drug trade, and we are doing far too little about it,″ he told the committee.

Another witness, retired Army Gen. Paul Gorman, former commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, said it was long known in Panama that Noriega was ″venal″ and there was virtually no aspect of Panamanian commerce in which he was not involved.

Gorman, who served in Panama from 1983 to 1985, said he had heard rumors but seen no reliable evidence that Noriega was involved in drug trafficking.

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